Vowel Movements: The Source of Railroad Earth’s Good Life
A rather informal jam session in New Jersey back in 2001 led to the inception of Railroad Earth. On the strength of a demo tape that would later become their superb studio debut, Black Bear Sessions, the band' became an immediate hit at the Grey Fox and Telluride Bluegrass festivals. Built around the deep lyrics and songs of Todd Sheaffer (lead vocals, guitar), the rest of the playersTim Carbone (violin vocals), John Skehan (mandolin, vocals), Andy Goessling (guitar, banjo, dobro, mandolin, flute, pennywhistle, saxophones, vocals), Cary Harmon (drums, vocals), and Johnny Grubb (upright bass)create a lush array of acoustic instrumentation touching on bluegrass, rock and jazz with strong hints of Celtic, Irish folk and even Indian influences.
Much more than the dull-clichf jamgrass or newgrass, Railroad Earth's sound and touring base has continued to develop over the course of a few years. In 2002, the band released its Sugar Hill Records debut Bird in a House, which picked up where The Black Bear Sessions left offmore memorable songs with hot picking and melodies and choruses that become familiar so easily. Somewhere in between a bluegrass band playing rock and a rock band playing with bluegrass instruments, Railroad Earth also proved on "Bird in a House" that the band could even breakdown into a New Orleans brass band (see "Came Up Smilin" from that album).
In June of this year, Railroad Earth released its second Sugar Hill album The Good Life. With songs that can make the listener laugh, cry, think about the world, or just want to get in a car and drive nowhere in particular really fast, The Good Life is everything a great album should beand now Railroad Earth has three of them. It's the type of album that can make a bad day better and a great day even more so. In "Storms" Sheaffer says "all these storms I know we'll weather/all these storms we'll ride together" and in "Mourning Flies" he offers the line "carry me through/I'll carry you"and no matter the personal circumstances of one's own life to relate those lyrics to, you can't help but believe them.
I had the chance to talk with Railroad Earth's Todd Sheaffer recently about the band's beginnings, The Good Life and the phenomenon known as vowel movements.'
Mark Pantsari: From what I gather from the band’s website and press releases, it seems Railroad Earth had a pretty informal beginning?
Todd Sheaffer: We were all friends from the Northwest New Jersey music scene, there's a nice little community out here. So we knew each other but had never all played together. Most of us had played together in various projectsI had played a little bit with John Skehan before and Kerry had worked with Tim, and Tim and Andy have known each other and played together for lots of years in a couple of different groups, and I'd had Tim sit in with my old bandso we all knew each other but kind of hadn't found ourselves all at the same time with no real steady band. We kind of came togethernot really planned to come togetherwe got together over at Andy's house and some of us were just kind of picking some bluegrass tunes and it started to take some shape from that and I also threw out some of my newest original tunes that I had been working on and we seemed to really have something. So we went into the studio and recorded it and that became The Black Bear Sessions. And the response was pretty much immediate. We got some great, pretty high profile bookingsso I guess once we went to Grey Fox and went to Telluride and played I guess we considered ourselves a band at that point (laughs).
MP: Might as well be a band huh?
TS: Yeah, that's right. (laughs).
MP: So the Sugar Hill deal came about through the clout gained from the first record and tour?
TS: Yeah, they liked the first record a lot. And they saw us play at a couple of festivals, like Merlefest and Telluride, they came out to where we rehearsed at this old barn out in Stillwater and hung out with us for a good four or five days. We got to know themgot to know them as peopleit's a smaller label and they like to work with folks that they like, it's kind of a family feeling. They liked us and we liked them so we decided to jump at the bit.
MP: Sugar Hill seems more well known for the more traditional stuff, but you guys, Acoustic Syndicate and even Nickel Creek are definitely doing some newer things with acoustic music and I think it’s pretty cool for that label to be pushing it a little bit.
TS: I think that's what Sugar Hill saw in us. I think that's what they liked about us. We were doing something just a little bit differentthey have an incredible catalogue of great bluegrass stuffbut they saw that we were taking acoustic music and doing something a little different with it, maybe something new, and they were excited by it. And the bottom line is that they like the songwriting, there's a lot of bluegrass bands out there but they liked our songs. And they liked the people, so I think it's a great label, it's a great home for us.
MP: Your name is attached to every song, I guess it’s safe to say you’re the principal lyricist in the band? How do songs come together, what’s the process like for you guys?
TS: I tend to write just by picking up my guitar and singing. I try to get into a frame of mind where things are flowinga creative zone or an inspired placewhere things are going through me and it's kind of effortless. It's about getting into a place, for me, where I let things flow freely and I just pick up the guitar and play and sing and melody will present itself. I'll kind of latch onto the melody and a lyric will attach itself to the melody. I'll sing some things that I find interesting or that grab me and it's like oh that's something you need to hold onto, that felt right, that sounded right, it felt good to play,' so I'll latch onto a lyric or a sound of a lyric. A lot of times, it's just the vowel sound of a lyricI kind of have like a vowel movement' (laughs).
The shape of the lyric will present itself in a flow of vowel sounds. And I'll listen back to it and try to make some sense out of it and attach some words to it or find what I'm trying to say. And then I'll work on it a little more and the melody will take a little more shape and suggest where the song might go from thereanother chord changeit just kind of takes shape like that. Really, it's just a process of playing and singing. Sometimes I'll get off the road it will take a few weeks to really get into any type of place where I feel like anything I'm doing is worth a shit. But then once I get to that place where I get to where it's flowing I could have a whole bunch of ideas in the matter of an hour, you know?
And we have a lot of songs that didn't really make the recordprobably 20 or 25 really strong ideasand then we sort of honed in on it from there to shaping the record into what it wants to be. But as far as the accompaniment and the music, I'll bring a basic song and the structure and lyrics, but I have a lot of trust in the players in the band. I might have some ideas of what I want it to sound like, but generally I kind of let it go and let the band play and develop the arrangement and the other parts just by letting the guys play and come up with their own parts. That's the great thing about being in a band (laughs).
MP: What are some of your personal favorites from The Good Life?
TS: Well, to start at the beginning, I really like "Storms." It really has a sweet feeling to it and I really like to play it and I like to hear it. "Mourning Flies" is another favoritethat one has a real new, kind of fresh sound for us. It's really the first onethat wasn't one that I'd really written and brought to the bandit's a song that started in rehearsal just kind of jamming on a groove that Kerry started and I started a chord change to that and sort of made a song out of a lot of what we were just jamming on. And we haven't ever really worked that way and I think it's a really unique sounding song for us and points us in a whole new direction that we can explore, so that's a favorite.
MP: The changes in "Mourning Flies" seem to really convey a lot of different emotionsfrom dark to cheerful and back again and back again. The music sort of carries the same weight as the lyrics.
TS: Yeah, that's what I like it for. And I love a "Long Way to Go" and "The Good Life," too. And "Basement" I like a lotI like em all what can I say? (laughs)
MP: The character Johnny from "In the Basement," is that the same little’ Johnny from "Came Up Smilin" fame? (a track from Bird in a House)
TS: I tend to end up using the name Johnny a lot, but that's actually a song thatthe Johnny in that one could have been our own John Skehan (laughs). John practices and rehearses in his basement and he has airplanes that hang down from the ceiling that he has from his dad. His dad made model airplanes, so that's where that song came from. And it started with John's mandolin tune, it's one we wrote the music together on. The lead into the song is John's mandolin piece and I wrote a song around that.
MP: "Long Way to Go" seems like the classic on the road’ bluegrass tune.
TS: Yeah, it could've been handed down from Woody Guthrie (laughs).
MP: The hidden track, "Donkey for Sale," is that an little Elvis impersonation?
TS: (laughs) I don't know what all that's about. I guess it was kind of a gut-bucket blues thing and, I don't know, some where along the line it got a little twisted (laughs). It started out really swampy and bluesy and got a little weird at the end, I don't know. I'm not sure what to make of that, that's why we put it as a hidden track. Everybody liked it, but it kind of stood out as a little out of context from the rest of the record. But we kind of liked it for some reason, so we dumped it as the hidden track. Everybody's found out about it, so it's really not that hidden (laughs).
MP: It seems that "Way of the Buffalo" is carrying a bit of political commentary?
TS: Yeah, I think so. It made us laugh when I was singing itit's sort of sad and funny all at the same time (laughs). It's a sad site to see your favorite field or green space paved over and covered with the corporate sprawl you know? We travel all over the country and it gets to be the same pretty much all over. I don't know that's all about, it's scary.
MP: So what are the band’s plans for the rest of the year?
TS: We've got a pretty busy festival line up through the rest of the summer and into the fall too. We'll be playing a lot really until the end of the year.
MP: I know The Good Life just came out in June, but do you guys have anything else in the works? New songs or thoughts about another project?
TS: We're thinking about but don't have any definite recording plans, we don't have anything scheduled yet. I'm always thinking about doing some new stuff.
MP: For my own personal greed, you guys should think about doing a double-live album (laughs). I’m a big fan of that and think every band should have one.
TS: We've been hearing that a lot. I think that's a good idea, we've talked about a live album but just haven't done it yet. But it's a good idea."
MP: The times I’ve seen you guys play, it seems like you’ve had a growing number of people following you on the road. Have you noticed, I don’t even know what they are calling themselves, a Railroad Earth bandwagon?
TS: Oh yes. Absolutely. We've become actually pretty good friends with a lot of people. It's like you said, more and more people keep finding out about the band and they are enjoying what we are doing. So it's good to see.
Mark Pantsari is a freelance writer living in Folly Beach, SC